Yoga, as practiced in the modern Western world, is exercise. But it can be practiced as much more than exercise—that's what makes it yoga. It's also what makes questions about whether yoga is cultural appropriation complicated.
"Yoga is not a religion," says Sri Rajagopal, a swami at the Portland Balaji Temple and Hindu Educational and Cultural Society of America. "And yoga is not Hindu."
Yoga isn't Buddhism, either. It also isn't New Age quackery, and it isn't spiritualism.
According to Swami Rajagopal, yoga is experiencing another re-definition in its centuries-long history of absorption and synthesis of evolving developments and demands.
"Yoga makes for a very good way for people to live and be healthy. Everyone should be able to practice," he says, "and the fact that more people are practicing is, in my understanding, a good thing."
Not everyone agrees. Some say yoga is being defaced by the majority-white, middle- and upper-class Americans who practice it. Websites like Everyday Feminism, Vice and Huffington Post have all written about issues surrounding cultural appropriation and yoga. There's even a site called Decolonizing Yoga, with essays by writers like Susanna Barkataki, who discusses the way she feels at Western yoga studios: "My culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst."
Before you toss out your mat and take up Viking-style rowing, consider the perspectives of two members of the Portland Hindu community and a local academic, who feel differently.
Relax, they say.
Derived from the Sanskrit root "yuj," yoga has been foundational to the physical and spiritual wellness traditions of both the Indian subcontinent and the East African continent for millennia. Yoga probably began as seated meditation as early as 2500 B.C.E., developing pranayama and chanting a millennia later, and not incorporating any postures at all until the medieval period. Of the 196 sutras in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, one of yogic philosophy's formative texts, you can count the ones that mention poses on one hand.
Although we typically think of '60s counterculture as the start of modern yoga in the West, the physical focus is actually a century older than that, according to Stuart Sarbacker, a professor of philosophy and comparative religion at Oregon State University.
"A revitalization movement was happening in India, in some ways connected to the rise of Indian nationalism and the independence movement, to re-valorize indigenous Indian, and especially Hindu, practices," he says.
In 1893, Swami Vivekananda gave yoga a formal introduction to the West at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The yoga-as-calisthenics model now offered at your local LA Fitness was specifically engineered at the turn of the century by teachers of classical Indian yoga as India's competitive counter to Europe's flashy new physical practices, like gymnastics and bodybuilding.
"[They] saw yoga as a way to reclaim their heritage, but also to become strong in body and mind as a way of preparing themselves to resist, en masse, colonial occupation," says Sarbacker. "Some people will argue that yoga today isn't authentic because it's been adapted in some ways to fit the modern world, but really, that's been the story of yoga throughout its history."
In another narrative, though, Westerners' continued practice of that physique-focused yoga that ignores yoga's complex history of influence on the Eastern world's religious belief systems exemplifies how our dominant culture still benefits from the colonial oppression that drove traditional Indian yoga teachers to sell a watered-down version of their practices.
According to Rajagopal, the essential differences between a typical, secular American yogi and a yogi who practices asana as an element of religious ritual are mostly just differences of context and scale.
"Let's say you wake up in the morning and you want to spend a half hour doing yoga, so you sit in one place on your mat, in a Western meditation style," he says. "You are doing yoga, in that time frame. But Hindus, they do it in the morning and the evening, and every day they do the worship of the Sun God. Everywhere, they're practicing yoga."
Swami Chandrashekharananda of the Portland Vedanta Society echoes these sentiments, saying, "Doctrines, dogmas, churches, Bibles—these are all secondary details. To manifest one's divinity is the goal of life."
And though studio-style yoga often functions as only a tiny piece of a huge spiritual puzzle, he says, it's not a bad place to start piecing things together.
In fact, Chandrashekharananda says that many members of his temple have backgrounds in Western yoga styles and came to Vedanta out of a desire to deepen the spiritual and existential questions their yoga practices were attempting to answer.
There's nothing wrong with someone being drawn to Western yoga primarily for its health benefits and comfortable stopping their exploration at that point, Chandrashekharananda says.
"Those who come to yoga are looking for something positive," he says. "Maybe it's not very articulated. But they sit and chant 'Om' and feel something—that's fine. But it's only class one."
But focusing on the perspective of these two swamis may itself be problematic.
Many contemporary yoga studio spaces borrow Hindu iconography, including depictions of the curved Sanskrit icon for "Om" and of the deities Shiva awnd Shakti, and some teachers include readings from the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita. That's also problematic, since Western yoga culture's tokenization of Hindus as the knowledge-bearers of yoga leaves out the centuries-long exchange of ideas between yogic philosophy and other major Eastern religious movements like Buddhism and Jainism and the evidence that some yogic concepts originated with the Kemetic people of ancient Egypt.
Nothing exempts yoga-practicing members of the dominant culture from vetting their practices, seeking to expand their understanding of yoga's roots and using that education to work toward a practice that isn't reductive. Credit must be given to those who've shared their knowledge—not just your teachers and their teachers, but the centuries on centuries of Indian, East African, Chinese and Southeast Asian yoga practitioners who, because of how history's been written, will remain nameless to you.
But that's the beauty of the tradition, says Chandrashekharananda: Inclusivity is one steadfast rule in yoga. The philosophy is built on the idea that the path to enlightenment should be open to everyone.
"Light is shining for you," he says. "And for me also."